Nutritional Facts & Health Effects of Beef: A Beginner’s Guide

INTRODUCING THE NUTRITIONAL FACTS AND HEALTH EFFECTS OF BEEF

In this article, we examine the nutritional facts and health effects of beef.

Beef is the name given to cattle meat. Cattle are known scientifically as Bos taurus.

Beef is a type of red meat. All meat from mammals are red meats. Their iron content is higher than that in fish or chicken.

Beef is usually served as steaks, ribs, or roasts. It is also served minced or ground. Hamburgers are made with patties of ground beef.

Processed form of beef is sold as beef jerky, corned beef, and sausages.

Lean beef (fresh ones) are rich in vitamins and minerals, mostly zinc and iron. Humans are therefore advised to take moderate amount of beef as part of a healthy diet (1). This article will extensively discuss the nutrition facts and health effects of beef.

Nutritional facts and health effects of beef
Photo Credit: FARM and DAIRY

NUTRITION FACTS ABOUT BEEF

Beef contains large amounts of protein. Fat content also varies.

Below are the nutrition facts of beef: these facts are for a 3.5 ounce serving of broiled, ground beef with a fat percentage of 10 (2):

  • 217 calories
  • 61% water
  • 26.1 grams protein
  • 0 grams carbs
  • 0 grams sugar
  • 0 grams fiber
  • 11.8 grams fat

Protein

The basic macronutrient in meat – beef, is protein.

Lean, cooked beef has a protein content of 26 to 27 percent (2).

Animal products usually have high quality protein. Animal protein consists all the nine essential amino acids that are required for the maintenance and growth of the human body (3).

Amino acids have very important health benefits – we are not forgetting the fact that they are the building blocks of proteins. The composition of amino acids in proteins vary widely, although this depends on the dietary source.

Meat is a complete source of protein. The amino acid profile of beef (meat) is similar to that of your muscles.

Because of this, meat and other animal proteins help in recovery after surgery, or for athletes. These are important nutrition facts and health effects of beef. In addition to strength exercise, animal protein helps in the building and maintenance of muscles mass (3).

Fat

The fat content of beef varies. Beef fat is also known as beef tallow.

Speaking of taste, beef fat adds to the flavor of beef. Apart of that, it causes a drastic increase in the calorie content of beef.

The fat content of beef depends on the animal’s age, the level of trimming, the feed used to groom the animal, and the gender of the animal. Research has shown that the fat content of processed meat is higher. Among these include salami and sausages.

The percentage of fat in lean meat is about 5–10% (4).

Beef consists mainly of monounsaturated and saturated fat, both in roughly equal amounts. The most common fatty acids include oleic acid, palmitic acid, and stearic acid (3).

Ruminant animals like sheep and cows, also have a form of fat known as ruminant trans fats (5).

In contrasts to their industrially-produced counterparts, natural ruminant trans fats do not have any negative health effects.

Conjugated linoleic acid seems to be the most common animal fat. It is present in dairy products, lamb and beef (5, 6).

Conjugated linoleic acid has many health benefits among which are weight loss. However, taking an excessive dosage of conjugated linoleic acid in supplements may have negative effects on your body’s metabolic processes (7, 8, 9, 10, 11). This is an important point to note about the nutritional facts and health effects of beef.

Vitamins and minerals

Beef is rich in the following vitamins and minerals:

  • Vitamin B12. Meat and other animal-based foods have a high amount of vitamin B12. Vitamin B12 plays a very important role in the formation of blood. It is also good for the nervous system and the brain.
  • Zinc. The zinc content of beef is quite impressive. Zinc is important for the growth and maintenance of the body.
  • Selenium. Generally, meat and meat products are rich in selenium. Selenium is an important trace element with numerous functions in the human body (12).
  • Iron. Beef is a good source of iron. The form of iron that is present in beef is known as heme. The human body finds it very easy to absorb heme (13).
  • Niacin. Niacin is a B vitamin. More specifically, it is known as vitamin B3. Vitamin B3 deficiency is associated with heart disease (14).
  • Vitamin B6. Vitamin B6 is another member of the B vitamins family. It plays a vital role in the formation of blood, and energy metabolism.
  • Phosphorus. Most foods have a high content of phosphorus. The Western diet has a rich phosphorus profile. It is important for the growth and maintenance of the human body.

Beef also has a low content of other vitamins and minerals.

The processed form of beef, like sausages, may have a high sodium content.

This is an important point to note about the nutritional facts and health effects of beef.

Other compounds that are present in meat…

Meat has various antioxidants and bioactive substances, just like plants. These substances have their health effects when taken in large amounts.

Some important compounds that are present in beef include:

  • Creatine. Meat has a high creatine content. Creatine provides energy for muscles. It is used mainly by bodybuilders. It plays an important role in the growth and maintenance of muscles (15, 16).
  • Taurine. Taurine is abundant in meat and fish. Basically, taurine is an amino acid with antioxidant properties. It is common in most energy drinks. The human body produces taurine and it is important for optimum functioning of the heart and the muscle (17, 18, 19).
  • Glutathione. Glutathione is an important antioxidant present in many whole foods. Its content in red meat is interestingly very large. It is prominent in grass-fed beef compared to the grain-fed version (20, 21).
  • Conjugated linoleic acid (CLA). Conjugated linoleic acid has a lot of health benefits especially when taken as part of a healthy diet. It is a ruminant trans fat (7, 8).
  • Cholesterol. Cholesterol is a compound with many functions – all equally important. Dietary cholesterol does not have much effect on blood cholesterol in many persons and is thus not considered as posing any health concern (22).

SO, WHAT ARE THE HEALTH BENEFITS OF BEEF?

Beef has a high amount of good-quality protein. It is also rich in vitamins and minerals. Because of this, it makes a healthy ingredient in your daily diet.

Maintenance of muscle mass

It has been established that beef is a good source of dietary protein.

It contains every essential amino acid, and is thus seen as a complete protein.

Most humans, especially adults, do not take in large amounts of protein. They neglect protein in their diets.

Protein deficiency accelerates the aging process due to wasting away of the muscles. This increases ones risk of sarcopenia (23).

Sarcopenia is a health disorder that is common among adults. However, it can be reversed or prevented by partaking in strength exercises or increasing one’s intake of proteins.

Animal-based foods such as milk, fish and meats are the best sources of protein.

If you want to live a healthy life, and enjoy the positive health effects of beef, then it is pertinent that you consume beef regularly. Regular beef consumption and other high protein foods helps to preserve your muscle mass, and minimize your risk of sarcopenia. This is an important point to note about the nutritional facts and health effects of beef.

Improved exercise performance

Carnosine plays an important role in optimum muscle function (24, 25).

Carnosine is formed from beta-alanine in the body. Beta-alanine is present in high amounts in meat, beef and fish.

Studies have shown that taking beta-alanine supplements for up to 10 weeks increases muscle carnosine level by 40-80% (26, 24, 27, 28).

On the other hand, sticking strictly to vegetarian diets reduces the level of carnosine in the muscles (29).

Studies have shown that carnosine protects against fatigue in humans. It also boosts your performance during exercise (26, 30, 31, 32).

As a plus, further research has shown that beta-alanine supplements improves one’s strength and running time (33, 34). This is an important point to note about the nutritional facts and health effects of beef.

Prevention of anemia

Anemia is a condition characterized by a drastic reduction in red blood cell count. Because an anemic person has a low amount of red blood cells, his or her blood has a reduced ability to ferry oxygen to the tissues.

One of the commonest causes of anemia is iron deficiency. Anemia is identified by symptoms such as weakness and tiredness.

Beef is a good source of iron. Iron in beef is present in the form of heme.

Heme is only present in animal-based foods. It is not present, or if at all, in very low amounts in vegan and vegetarian diets (35).

The human body finds it very easy to absorb heme iron, much more than non-heme iron. Plants have non-heme iron (13).

It suffice to say that meat (beef) is rich in bioavailable iron. As a plus, it enhances the absorption of non-heme iron.

Some studies have shown that consumption of meat can enhance the absorption of non-heme iron. This is possible as meat can suppress the actions of phytic acid. Phytic acid is a compound that inhibits the absorption of iron (36, 37, 38).

A study has also shown that meat supplement was able to maintain the iron level in women during intense exercise compared to iron tablets (39).

Thus, one of the nutrition facts and health effects of beef is that it helps to prevent anemia caused by iron deficiency.

WHAT ROLE DOES BEEF PLAY IN HEART DISEASE?

Heart disease is a major cause of premature death the world over.

Heart disease encompasses disorders of the cardiovascular system, such as strokes, heart attacks, and hypertension (high blood pressure).

Studies examining the effects of red meat on heart disease have given conflicting results.

A few studies have shown that beef increases the risk of heart disease. This is common to both processed and unprocessed meat. However, other studies did not report any significant association (40, 41, 42, 43).

It is important to note that observational studies do not prove cause and effect. All it does is to show that meat consumption either raises or decreases the risk of heart disease in the eater.

There is a possibility that excessive meat consumption may just be an unhealthy behavior, and not necessarily a cause of poor health.

For instance, people that are conscious of their health usually avoid red meat. Why? Because they have been told that it is unhealthy (44).  

Also, people who eat excessive amount of meat tend to be more overweight, and more likely to lead a sedentary lifestyle. They also do not eat a lot of fiber, fruits and vegetables (35, 45, 46).

These factors tend to be corrected by observational studies, but the statistical adjustments may not necessarily be perfect. This is an important point to note about the nutritional facts and health effects of beef.

Saturated fat and heart disease

So many researchers have attempted to explain the relationship between consumption of meat and heart disease.

One popular hypothesis is the diet-heart theory. According to the theory, intake of saturated fat increases one’s risk of heart disease. It does this by elevating the level of cholesterol in the blood.

This is a very controversial hypothesis with mixed evidences. Some studies did not observe a significant association between intake of saturated fat and heart disease (47, 48, 49).

However, in spite of the varying results, many health authorities are of the opinion that humans should watch their intake of saturated fat, and this includes beef tallow.

If you have serious concerns about saturated fat, then you may replace it with lean meat. Studies have shown that lean meat has positive effects on the level of cholesterol in humans (50, 51, 52).

This is an important point to note about the nutritional facts and health effects of beef.

DOES BEEF CAUSE CANCER?

One of the commonest types of cancer globally is colon cancer.

Studies have shown that high consumption of meat increases the risk of colon cancer. However, some studies did not find any significant link between meat consumption and colon cancer (53, 54, 55, 56, 57).

Some components of red meat seem to have a hand in this:

  • Heme iron. Studies show that heme iron has carcinogenic effects on the body (58, 59, 60).
  • Heterocyclic amines. These are carcinogenic substances produced by overcooking of meat (61).

Heterocyclic amines are carcinogens that are produced when animal proteins are subjected to cooking temperature – like grilling, baking or frying.

Heterocyclic amines are present in overcooked, and well-cooked poultry, fish, and meat (62, 63).

These substances give an insight on the relationship between consumption of red meat and cancer.

Studies have shown that the risk of cancer is increased when a person consumes large amounts of meat, whether well-done, or over-cooked (64).

Such forms of cancer include prostate, breast and colon cancer (65, 66, 67, 68, 69, 70, 71, 72, 73, 74).

A particular study showed that women who took well-cooked meat on a daily basis had their risk of breast cancer increased by more than 4 fold (71).

All in all, it has been established that regular consumption of well-cooked meat increases one’s risk of breast cancer.

We do not fully understand whether this risk of cancer is due to the activity of the heterocyclic amines or other substances that are formed by the cooking temperature.

The risk of cancer is also increased by factors such as smoking, and having an unhealthy diet.

To enjoy optimal health, it is best that you limit your intake of overcooked meat. A better option would be boiling, stewing or steaming it.

This is an important point to note about the nutritional facts and health effects of beef.

OTHER DANGEROUS HEALTH EFFECTS OF BEEF

Beef also has other negative health effects other than cancer and heart disease.

Beef tapeworm

Some beef contains the tapeworm, known scientifically as Taenia saginata. This is a parasite that resides in the intestines. At times, it grows to a length of 13-33 feet (75).

Beef tapeworm is almost non-existent in developed countries but is very common in Africa, Latin America, Asia and Eastern Europe.

Infection mostly occurs through consumption of undercooked or raw meat.

When one is infected with beef tapeworm, he or she does not usually exhibit symptoms. However, when the infection is severe, it may result in abdominal pain, nausea and weight loss (76).

This is an important point to note about the nutritional facts and health effects of beef.

Iron overload

Beef is a very important source of iron.

Excess consumption of iron-rich food causes iron overload.

The most common cause of iron overload is hereditary hemochromatosis, a genetic disorder characterized by excessive absorption of iron from food (77).

Iron overload is fatal. It causes heart disease, liver problems, and cancer.

People who have hemochromatosis should watch their intake of red meat, like beef and lamb (78).

This is an important point to note about the nutritional facts and health effects of beef.

COMPARING THE NUTRITIONAL FACTS IN GRASS-FED BEEF & GRAIN-FED BEEF

The nutrient composition of meat depends on the feed used to groom the animal.

Formerly, cattle were groomed on grass. Presently, most cattle are fed with feeds made from grain.

Grass-fed beef has a higher nutrient value than grain-fed beef (79):

  • It is rich in antioxidants (80, 81)
  • The fat-content of grass-fed beef is yellow in color, implying that it is rich in carotenoid antioxidants (82)
  • Vitamin E in grass-fed beef is higher than that in grain-fed beef (83)
  • lower amounts of fat
  • Fatty acid profile is healthier than that in grain-fed beef
  • They have a high content of ruminant trans fat (84)
  • Omega – 3 fatty acids is higher grass-fed beef than in grain-fed beef.

The summary of it is that beef from grass-fed cattle is richer and healthier than that from grain-fed cattle.

This is an important point to note about the nutritional facts and health effects of beef.

SO, WHAT’S THE SUMMARY OF THE NUTRITIONAL FACTS AND HEALTH EFFECTS OF BEEF?

This article has extensively analyzed the nutritional facts and health effects of beef.

Beef is widely consumed.

It is a good dietary source of protein, minerals and vitamins.

Because of its high nutritional value, it enhances the growth and maintenance of muscles; it also improves performance in exercise and physical activities. Because of its high iron content, beef also reduces the risk of anemia.

Consuming overcooked and processed meat in excess increases the risk of cancer and heart disease. Conversely, unprocessed beef, or partially cooked beef is healthy when taken in moderate amounts.

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